History - Waddesdon Manor
Imagine if you will ‘an extravagantly turreted chateau in the French Renaissance style, sitting on a hilltop in rural Buckinghamshire’.¹ This splendid first glimpse of Waddesdon Manor, after a steep winding climb up a mile-long drive, gave us a breathtaking introduction to the size and opulence of this exquisite house, home to Ferdinand de Rothschild and begun in the 1880’s.
‘Even more unexpected are the treasures inside the house: a superlative collection of English paintings hangs beside the finest French 18th-century decorative arts, set in rooms clad in panelling from the grandest Parisian town houses’.² As we explored the house, the setting for gatherings of the rich, the famous, the cultured and even Royalty, we began to appreciate the world-class collections of porcelain, art and furniture that the widowed Ferdinand amassed after the early death of his young wife in childbirth.
Here was an unsurpassed collection of Meissen and Sevres pottery, filling two rooms; walls lined with portraits and paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and others European artists of a similar calibre; historical furniture, including Marie Antoinette’s writing desk ; quirky ‘objets d’art’ such as a huge mechanical elephant – all within an elegant, luxurious and yet surprisingly intimate setting of a private home.
The private quarters of this sociable millionaire were remarkably unostentatious and personal, a place where the owner could relax and enjoy his simple pleasures, in stark contrast to the vast and magnificent State Rooms , which displayed to great advantage his wealth and high social rank.
Among the many surprising articles in this house were the original ‘Balfour Declaration’ of 1917 and a large painting identifying all the homes of the Rothschild family throughout Europe. Waddesdon compared in size and style to some of the most sumptuous Palaces (or Palais) which were scattered in the capital cities of this continent.
Also on display during our visit was an exhibition of linen folding by international expert Joan Sallas, which showcased the intricate art of folding napkins into shapes and figures. I did not have time to explore the extensive and carefully tended grounds, but some of our group were able to do so when the inclement weather ceased. An excellent interactive audio-visual guide enhanced the experience of visiting this unique house and I look forward to a return visit in the not too distant future.
¹ Quote taken from ‘The Waddesdon Companion Guide’ Introduction, page 3
² Quote taken from ‘The Waddesdon Companion Guide’ Introduction, page 3
History - Cadburys
The Story of Cadbury’s by Colin Pitt.
89 Members of the History Group enjoyed a stimulating talk by Colin Pitt, Education Manager of Cadbury World. In a humorous and interactive manner he unfolded the history of Cadbury’s, from its foundation in 1824 to the present time.
The Company was founded by John Cadbury, a wealthy Quaker. Many Quakers were very powerful and influential families at this time, Christian philanthropists seeking to improve the wellbeing and welfare of the working classes. Examples of Quaker companies known to us include Cyrus Clark, shoe maker; Joseph Rowntree, chocolatier; Terry’s chocolatier; Bryant and May, match manufacturers; J S Fry, chocolatier; Huntley and Palmers, biscuit manufacturers; Barclay and Lloyd, bankers.
The History of the company began in 1824, John Cadbury starting as a chocolate retailer in Lower Bull Street, Birmingham. In 1831 John became a manufacturer of cocoa, receiving a Royal Warrant in 1854. From Bull Street he moved to Crooked Lane, then to Bridge Street and on the 8th September 1879, the company moved to Bourneville, ‘the Factory in a Garden’. During this time, in 1861, his sons Richard and George took over. The company had been struggling for a while, but in 1866 cocoa essence was produced and this turned the company around. Cadbury’s was one of the first companies in the world to employ a doctor and a dentist who gave free care to employees. Health and education for employees was a primary concern of the Cadbury family.
As a matter of principle, the Cadbury family wouldn’t employ married women and girls who left the company to get married were presented with a Bible.
At the end of the 19th Century Cadbury ‘caskets’ filled with chocolates were produced, and when the contents had been eaten the caskets were found to be very useful for storing jewellery, love letters, handkerchiefs etc. Colin showed us some examples of these caskets.
Colin then spoke about some of the products for which Cadbury’s were famous, and the members were surprised at how long some of these chocolates had been around. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was first introduced in 1905. Cadbury’s Crunch and Cadbury’s cream eggs were introduced in 1924. In 1938 Roses was launched. The shape of the box is iconic. Cadbury’s Milk Tray first hit the shops in 1915. In 1918 – 1919 Jelly Babies were introduced, and were first known as ‘Peace Babies’ in the aftermath of the Great War. In the 1920s and 1930s there was a global expansion into the Commonwealth. In 1938 a Pyrex casserole dish was filled with Cadbury’s Roses, as a Christmas gift, which the members found to be a most unromantic present! Commemorative flat tins of chocolates were used by countless generations of children as pencil boxes.
Lots of senior members remembered the products and the children’s clubs. There were plenty of old artefacts to take us back down ‘Memory Lane’ and the interactive meeting encouraged many comments and much audience participation.
In 1902 a visitor department was first set up and in 2012 the Cadbury colour purple was patented as a trademark.
More recent history of the Company was then explained – mergers, takeovers etc. In 1919 Cadbury’s and Fry merged. In 1962 they became a PLC. In 1969 Cadbury/Schweppes merged. In 2008 Cadbury/Schweppes demerged. In 2010 they were taken over by Kraft Foods and in October 2012 they split into Kraft and Mondolies.
Colin spoke with humour and included lots of anecdotes. He highlighted the nostalgia of the products and brought with him a lot of memorabilia. It was a most enjoyable talk.
History - Kidderminster Walk
Guided Town Walks led by Melvyn Thompson in July.
Three Guided Town Walks were arranged over the course of the summer, all led by our local carpet historian and expert Melvyn Thompson. All those who went on the walks appreciated them very much and many said that they had not realised the extent of existing history still viewable in the town.
On a very warm day Melvyn encouraged us to ‘look up’ and see the architectural heritage that still remains in Kidderminster in some of the Victorian buildings in our town. He explained, as we began our walk down Green Street, that just over 150 years ago the town was surrounded by rural scenery and lowland meadows, the legacy of which is still incorporated in names such as ‘Pike Meadows’, ‘Long Meadow’, ‘Green Street’, ‘Stour Vale’ etc.
As we approached the junction of Dixon Street with Green Street, Melvyn pointed out the Northern Lights windows above ‘Anatolia’s’ in Dixon Street; Paddington House, built in 1870; the dye house and the Gatekeeper’s house among other examples of our carpet heritage. He also explained that names of streets in the town commemorate carpet owners eg Dixon Street, and later Brinton Crescent; Tomkinson Drive etc . Green Street was formerly the new road in the town, which we find hard to understand nowadays.
In the town centre we saw the evidence of the carpet trades in the remaining buildings of the former Brintons factories and the famous ‘Bull’ which many remembered sounding out over the town and beyond at strategic times of the day, until its demise in the 1990s. We passed the ‘Piano Building’ and Melvyn recalled the scene in the town centre when the area smelled constantly of wet wool as one passed through the muddy alley by the Piano building on a short cut into town from the canal. He emphasised the importance of the Staffs and Worcester canal and the River Stour in the growth of the carpet industry in Kidderminster. His talk was interspersed with anecdotes and a wealth of facts about the industry of which he is clearly passionate and very knowledgeable.
As we approached the town centre, Melvyn pointed out the plaques that highlighted the carpet heritage of the town. He spoke of the Carpet Masters, the industry and the buildings and many members added their own memories in the carpet industry to those of our Guide.
The guided walk ended at the Brinton Fountain at the top end of Oxford Street near the subway to the Station and here again Melvyn entertained us with interesting snippets of information. We were sorry to have to end the walk, but the exceptionally hot weather made it unwise to continue and we were aware that there is a further wealth of history to be unveiled in another Guided Town Walk at another time.
History - Belfast
Guided Tour of Belfast City
Belfast is a city of contrasts. I found it to be welcoming, forward- looking and vibrant. The people we met were very friendly, helpful and polite. Nothing was too much trouble for our group. However, on the day of our arrival, as we drove into the City, our coach was overtaken by many riot vans and later on the journey we saw riot police gathered, ready for the violence taking place later that evening. This scene was repeated again during our stay which was in the ‘Marching Season’ and every day the newspapers reported the previous night’s violence.
Our guided Coach Tour was to emphasise these contrasts. On the one hand, we visited some impressive and important civic sites, on the other we glimpsed some of the division and hatred that still mars and taints this beautiful Capital City.
We boarded our coach at the scene of the Harland and Wolff dockyards, where the Titanic was built, with their gigantic gantries which dominate the area for miles around.
Our tour continued with a drive to Stormont, the seat of Government. The steep mile-long drive up to this imposing building is remarkable and the view from the Stormont, down the seemingly vertical approach road, over the city is breathtaking. This huge white building dominates the skyline and leaves a lasting impression of grandeur and authority.
Later we passed the memorial to CS Lewis, with its Narnia based statue. C.S. Lewis is perhaps Belfast’s most famous ‘son’.
Stood fittingly outside Holywood Arches Library, this life-size statue is called The Searcher. It depicts the Belfast-born Chronicles of Narnia author as Narnia narrator Digory Kirke stepping into a wardrobe - no doubt in search of his mystical land. Sculptor Ross Wilson unveiled the bronze statue in 1998 - the centenary of Lewis' birth.
The rest of the tour took us into the area of ‘The Troubles’ – the Falls Road, the Crumlin Road, and the Shankhill Road among others. Here I gathered impressions of hopelessness and barrenness, fear and intimidation as I looked at the awful graffiti daubed on the ends of the soulless terraced houses. The graffiti was confrontational and graphic, conveying messages of revenge and hatred. We saw concrete walls and barbed wire, separating the warring factions and perpetuating the long conflict.
We also paid a visit to the Peace Wall, separating the Loyalists from the Republicans and some of us put our own messages of hope on this symbol of a divided city. Later in the tour we passed the Orange Hall, where the antagonistic marches took place only a day or two after our departure.
It was very interesting to do this tour. I began to understand that the conflict goes back many generations and that there is no easy solution. Mistakes and atrocities have been made by both sides. The tour gave me a good insight into the divided city.
Would I return to Belfast? Definitely! For there is much, and much more, to enjoy and admire about this city and I intend to return and explore more when I can.
History - Southwell Minster and Workhouse
Southwell Minster and Workhouse.
The U3A History Group outing to Southwell in Nottinghamshire, in June, proved to be a visit of contrasts. Southwell Minster is the Cathedral of the County of Nottingham, even though it is some miles from the County Town. It is an imposing building, with magnificent Norman architecture and the sense of grandeur and space was heightened on the day by the absence of chairs or other church furniture in the main area of the Minster. Instead, local schoolchildren were having an activity day in the vast space provided and we could appreciate the awesome dimensions of this medieval place of worship.
The Minster, set in the heart of rural Nottinghamshire in a delightfully unspoiled small town with some very fine Georgian and Queen Anne Houses, was founded in Saxon times and the present building begun in 1108, the Nave, towers and transepts being Romanesque and the Quire, early English.
An excellent audio tour provided the details needed to appreciate the historic building and its many outstanding features, including the 14th Century misericords, 16th Century stained glass windows, a brass eagle lectern of 1503, and a powerful and moving 20th Century ‘Stations of the Cross’.
There are many other notable features in the Minster, the most outstanding being the 13th Century Chapter House, which at the time of our visit housed an embroidery exhibition to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation. Some members of the group took the opportunity to enjoy this display which included a Coronation Maid of Honour’s dress and various clerical garments.
I felt that I had to agree with John Betjeman who said "everywhere around is an atmosphere of peace and in the Minster there's one of prayer."
By contrast, the visit to Southwell Workhouse, gave a sense of oppression and hopelessness. The Workhouse, built in 1824 and implemented from an idea by the local incumbent, Rev John Becher, became the model for all workhouses nationally. The feeling of despair was heightened by the segregated accommodation, the maze of stairways and corridors, and the sparse way of life within.
We viewed the kitchens, the laundry rooms, the dormitories and the exercise yards, as well as the children’s quarters, with schoolroom and nursery. The disparity between the inmates’ housing conditions and those of the Master and Matron was enormous and increased our sense of inequality and injustice.
The Guides who took us round, in small groups, were very knowledgeable and gave us valuable insights into the social history of the time, the implications of the workhouse system and its eventual demise. To comfort us after this harrowing visit, welcome refreshments were laid on for us at the end.
One small town, two contrasting ways of life. An exceptional journey.
History - Kinver Rock Houses
June 2013 History Group Meeting – Kinver Rock Houses by David Bills.
65 members of the History Group attended an illustrated slide show on the Kinver Rock Houses.
The presentation was given with humour and many tongue- in-cheek comments and covered the social history, geological detail and industrial history of this unique local feature. Old prints, quaint old photos, documents, old postcards, maps and paintings were used to illustrate the talk, which also included a history of Kinver village.
The most notable feature of the Rock Houses at Kinver is the Holy Austin Rock House, now owned and managed by the National Trust. There is no clue to the origin of the name, but the first known sketch is dated 1837 and shows farm labourers and open countryside. Holy Austen Rock was a man- made promontory fort. It is estimated to be 2500 years old. The geological structure of Holy Austen Rock is very similar to Ayers Rock in Australia, and it is a mini ‘Ayers Rock’. The industry at Kinver Edge, near to Holy Austen Rock, was quarrying, but the work closed in 1772. The quarrying was for sandstone for building blocks; technically the sandstone is known as dune bedded sandstone.
Old prints and other documentary evidence of life in the Kinver Rock Houses were shown to the Meeting. There were many interesting details in the pictures. In particular, a painting of 1901 by Alfred Rushton showed a Mr and Mrs Fletcher in a Rock House situated by a well. The painting gave a very good illustration of the interior of a Rock house, although it appeared to be ‘only’ a typical cottage scene of the time.
The history of the village of Kinver, nearby, was also mentioned. The Foley Family’s fortunes were connected with Kinver with their heavy metal industry. Their wealth led them to purchase Witley Court, near Stourport, one of the grand country houses of the time. The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal and the River Stour both played important roles in the industrial success of the area.
In 1922 the Kinver Rock Houses were given to the National Trust. The Rock Houses and cottages eventually fell into disrepair and a restoration project began in 1991, which included the garden. The presentation showed before and after photos.
David Bills was warmly thanked for his amusing and very informative presentation. It has possibly stimulated members to visit this unique local feature for themselves in the near future.
History - Hereford Cider Museum & Cathedral
Hereford Cider Museum and Cathedral.
The first destination was the King Offa Cider Museum, near Hereford City Centre. This was previously the Headquarters of the Bulmers Cider Company. Here we were divided into two groups and given a detailed and very interesting tour of the museum. We were shown mock-ups of old cider works and saw an exhibition of old cider making equipment. The guides explained the centuries-old processes of manufacturing cider and perry (fermented pear juice) and how the industry was critical to the local economy of both Hereford and Worcester.
We also viewed beautifully engraved crystal goblets and other cider-related memorabilia.
We were then taken into the Board Room of the former Bulmers factory , complete with Boardroom table and Chairman’s desk, and photos of the Founders adorning the walls. Our Guide explained the origins of the Company and its subsequent history before taking us into the cellars, where we were shown unique equipment and row upon row of bottles decorating the walls, as they had been in the heyday of the Company. Again the Guide explained other processes that were used in the production of cider and perry.
Following this, the Group had a Ploughman’s lunch in the cafe, complete with a complementary glass of cider, before the coach whisked us away to nearby Hereford Cathedral.
Here again, we were met by Guides and divided into groups to tour the Cathedral, dating from 1079 and dedicated to St Ethelbert. The history of the Cathedral, from its Norman origins to its Victorian refurbishment, following a major wall collapsing, were pointed out and we admired the excellent examples of Norman and ‘English Gothic’ architecture and the Romanesque Nave; the stunning windows, including medieval and Kempe windows and the historical and ornate tombs of former ‘Worthies’.
A particular delight was seeing the misericords and the five storeys high monks’ galleries, a marvel of Norman and medieval construction. Another feature of the Cathedral was the relic of a medieval saint, displayed in the beautifully restored Shrine of St Thomas of Hereford in the North Transept.
From there, we were taken in small groups to view the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library, both unique features of this extraordinary Cathedral. The Cathedral’s most famous treasure is Mappa Mundi, a vellum mediaeval map of the world. The Hereford Mappa Mundi, dating from about 1300AD is unique in Britain's heritage; an outstanding treasure of the medieval world, it records how thirteenth-century scholars interpreted the world in spiritual as well as geographical terms. The nearby Cathedral Chained Library contains exquisite manuscripts and early printed books some dating from the 15th Century and earlier. It was humbling to realise how the gift of printing and books was taken so seriously many centuries ago, compared to the ‘information overload’ of current times.
All in all, everyone enjoyed a fascinating and enjoyable day, exploring the features of a neighbouring County Town and Cathedral City.
History - Ernest and Mary Stevens
Roy Peacock - Ernest and Mary Stevens.
A full hall of History Group members welcomed the return visit of local historian, Roy Peacock, to give a talk on two Stourbridge benefactors, Ernest and Mary Stevens.
His indepth knowledge coupled with a good dose of humour kept the group riveted to his presentation. We were impressed by his ability to speak without notes, thus engaging the audience throughout.
Roy explained the background to Ernest Stevens’ life and how he rose from humble beginnings to accrue his wealth by manufacturing cookware. He pioneered enamelling of cookware and founded the ‘Judge’ cookware brand. He explained in detail the extent of the beneficent and charitable giving that both Ernest and his wife Mary contributed to the Black Country population at the start of the 20th Century and well into the 20th Century. This was largely due to their strong Christian Methodist beliefs and ethos and to their commitment to tee-totalism.
Four local parks, a Maternity Home, (the best in the country at that time), hospitals, charitable Trusts and children’s welfare projects were among the many schemes that the Stevens were involved in, some of which are still benefitting the population of the Black Country today. Ernest and Mary also attempted to improve the conditions of their workers and were pioneering in bringing women into their factories.
Roy set the social background for the talk as well as the historical scene, and the audience learned about the whole period from the late 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century – the social history, the industrial history and world history.
Roy provided interesting details in his talk, and delivered the presentation with humour and a real depth of knowledge of his subjects. It was obvious he had a passion for his topic and we, the audience, were caught up in his enthusiasm.
All in all, it was another fascinating talk by an expert Speaker.
History - Severn Valley Railway
David Skitt – The Severn Valley Railway.
74 Members of the History Group enjoyed an illustrated talk on the Severn Valley Railway, given by David Skitt at the April 2013 meeting. He presented his information with humour, detail and many anecdotes, giving us the historical background of the railway, the current circumstances and also a pictorial ‘journey’ from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth.
He explained the birth of the railway building boom of the mid 1850’s and how the rail system spread over the midland region, evolving into the Great Western Railway. He then charted the history of the railway to its demise at the hands of Dr Beeching in 1963 and the subsequent purchase and development of the track and stock to create what is now known as the Severn Valley Railway.
Following this, David took us on an illustrated ‘journey’ on the SVR, from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, detailing the interesting and special features of the ‘ride’ and the stations along the route and revealing to us film-making moments involving the SVR. He also explained the signalling system and the token system both of which are an integral part of the journey. David also paid tribute to the invaluable contribution of both the paid staff and the volunteers on the railway, helping with the operation , preservation and education.
To conclude, David mentioned some of the Special Weekends held by the SVR eg the ‘Santa Specials’, which are always popular in the run up to Christmas; the 40’s Weekends, which attract huge numbers of visitors in the summer; and the Spring and Autumn Steam Galas, among others. He added that the Observation Coach is a memorable way to travel to commemorate a significant event and that the Engine Shed at Highley is well worth visiting at any time.
David’s presentation was very well received and he was warmly thanked for his excellent talk.
History - Ironbridge
Brian Draper – Ironbridge and its Environs.
94 Members of the History Group were present at the March meeting for Brian Draper’s illustrated talk on Ironbridge and its environs. Brian, a well known local historian entitled his talk: ‘Coalbrookdale and the Ironbridge area’.
Brian encouraged us to visit the whole World Heritage Industrial Site area and not just the large Blists Hill Victorian Town. He pointed out many other interesting sites connected with the Industrial Revolution and its pioneering families, the Darby’s of Coalbrookdale and the Reynolds among others.
He explained how the importance of the River Severn, the burgeoning canal system, the vital raw materials found locally and the technology and skills of the local population all contributed to the explosion of pioneering techniques known as ‘The Industrial Revolution’. The geological and geographical features of the Severn Gorge area, between Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth, also played a significant role.
Brian gave a lively, down-to-earth presentation with a great deal of humour. He used maps, anecdotes, diagrams and photos to illustrate his talk, whilst also promoting the whole Heritage area as a significant tourist attraction. He certainly whetted many appetites to make a visit to this very interesting region.
History - Sir John Mucknell - The English Pirate
78 Members of the History Group were present at the February meeting to hear Carole Clements, one of our members, speak about Sir John Mucknell, the English Pirate.
The well-presented talk was illustrated with photographs, maps and artefacts which supported the story of Sir John, a loyal Royalist, at the time of the Civil War in England. As the captain of the ‘John’, Sir John commanded the sleekest, fastest and biggest ship of the East India Company fleet. A brilliant seaman, Sir John was also manipulative, controlling and devious, conducting a reign of terror on the high seas, using the flagship of the English pirate fleet as his base.
True to his nature, Sir John made outrageous demands for extra cannons, food, arms, money etc when the ship set sail from England, on 1st January 1644, under the guise of being a trading ship. In fact it was Sir John’s intention all along to be a pirate vessel.
As a staunch Roman Catholic, Sir John was heavily involved in the conflicts and controversies between the Royalist Roman Catholic faction and the Puritans and Parliamentarians.
He ran aground his ship, in 1645, off St Mary’s Island, in the Scilly Isles, after it was damaged in a battle with sailors sent by Charles I. Since then, its exact location has remained a mystery. To this day, St Mary’s Island is surrounded by many registered and unregistered wrecks dating from the 14th Century to the present day. The wreck of the ‘John’ was found and identified by a local diver, Todd Stevens, who has written a book about the colourful life and times of the English Pirate and the thorough and well researched account, based on this book, gets under the skin of Sir John, a volatile, ruthless man but also a ‘loveable rogue’.